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The Apostle


We don't often do "film reviews". However, we will make an exception for "The Apostle", which was written and directed by Robert Duvall, who also plays the title role.

It is obvious to anyone who has had any experience with Pentecostals (and especially with American Pentecostals) that Duvall is writing and acting from deep personal experience of Pentecostalism. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his excellent portrayal of a Pentecostal minister who falls from grace and then seeks to find redemption through a new identity.

But the thing that most impresses us with this movie is its honesty. Duvall's character, "Sonny," is both inspiring and repulsive at the same time. Depending on your perspective, you may feel that the director was trying to put down Pentecostalism or trying to elevate it. Our own feeling was that he probably presented it as being slightly better than what it is in reality. But only very slightly.

Duvall has certainly captured the marital infidelity that riddles the movement. And he has not painted over the hypocrisy, the egotism, the emotional manipulation, the petty bickering and callous infighting, or the double-talk and inconsistencies that go on between ministers who are committed to outward claims that are far more spiritual than their inward realities.

At the same time, he has caught what appears to be a sincere struggle to find God's will in the midst of it all. Sonny's quiet time of prayer and fasting, his spiritual agonies over his own sinfulness, and his sacrifices to build a church all reveal the heart of a man who is desperately seeking to do something worthwhile with his life.

Sonny's fervent dedication spreads to others, changing their lives in the process. The film's ending, while tragic in one way, at the same time represents a triumph of God's grace in spite of Sonny's sinfulness. All of this should warm the hearts of sincere churchgoers all over the world, but especially those of the Pentecostal persuasion.

But the movie is disturbing in that it does not offer the solution which we (and God) would so much like to offer the church today.

"Church" for Sonny is a place where people find fellowship and a distraction from their humdrum lives; but it does not do anything about making deeply significant practical changes in their humdrum lives. The womanisers continue to be womanisers. The gossips continue to be gossips. And the slaves to the system continue to be slaves to the system.

The reason for this frustrating state of affairs is because the teachings of Jesus never get a mention... not in the movie, and not in real life. God is a feeling, and little more.

Ruled as they are by their feelings, the people in Duvall's film are no less likely to pick up a baseball bat and knock someone's head off than anyone else in the world. All it takes is sufficient aggravation, and they explode. Certainly teachings about not killing and about going to hell if you do can keep people in line a bit; but so do concerns about electric chairs and concerns about what others will think, for people who have no faith in God at all.

Real faith in God must change people in a way that cannot be duplicated by nonbelievers. If, for example, Sonny had been part of a community of believers, who had given up everything that they owned to live by faith and to preach the gospel, as Jesus taught, then he and all of his followers would have had the practical support that they needed to help them overcome temptation. There would have been the counsel that was needed in his marriage. There would have been rebukes the very first time he or his wife started to flirt with sexual temptations. There would have been a grievance system, where he and his opponents could have worked out a fair and Christian solution to the problems that he faced.

Such a community would have been able to build a legacy that did not centre around renovations to either a run-down building or a run-down school bus. Members of such a community would have received all of the fellowship that they received in Duvall's churchy church (and much more), but they would also have received the counsel and direction that they needed to overcome their squabbles. They would have been able to leave their depressing directionless jobs and become part of an eternal kingdom, where people serve one another in love. Rather than just being one more congregation competing for the membership of that small town, they would have been able to offer a whole new alternative to life as we now know it.

But to join such a community, Sonny and everyone else would have had to make a choice to be subject to such discipline. They would have been forced to show their genuine commitment to change, by making themselves accountable to others 24 hours a day. Such a price is too high for half-hearted lukewarm counterfeits. So, instead, they go to playing church rather than being the true church of Jesus Christ.

It is tempting to justify the sins of the church, because if we do, then we may be able to get others to justify ours in return. That is the appeal of the churchy message of salvation. We're all sinners, so let's all sin together and then close our eyes, raise our hands in the air, and thank God that he forgives us for it all. But unless people really want to change, and unless they are prepared to accept God's formula for changing, it's all a religious farce.

An apostle? Was Sonny really an apostle? It depends on what the word means to you.

He certainly was a self-starter. He was prepared to start from scratch and to build up his own congregation... albeit with a little help from those who had started from scratch before him, and probably with a few members hustled from the competition's flocks. Nevertheless, he was a leader of some sort. Most people would have preferred to sit in a pew or to have left the church altogether if they had been disgraced in the way that Sonny was.

But Sonny was a tormented apostle at best. What he was building was more a monument to his own charisma. It would only be a matter of time before his temple would be as run-down and deserted as it had become when the pastor before him could no longer be present to hold it together.

A true apostle will build something that does not depend on his presence to keep it going. A true apostle will teach people to make the teachings of Jesus their cornerstone in all that they do. If he had done that, then it would not have mattered what became of him.

No amount of slander, no amount of scandal, no measure of separation either geographically or in time, can erase the eternal impact of what we build when we build it on the teachings of the only begotten Son of God.

The message is everything for a true apostle, and the medium through which it is revealed becomes irrelevant. Buildings can crumble, organisations fold, and projects fail, but the Truth will live on in the hearts and lives of those who have been touched by a true apostle.

Yes, The Apostle is an inspiring film, if we do not know that there is anything better to offer. But it is a depressing one when you think of all those who are willing to settle for something less than the everlasting kingdom of God, as taught by Jesus Christ -- the Apostle and High Priest of our profession. (Hebrews 3:1)

(See also disagreements, and self-starters.)

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